Thursday, October 11, 2012

On thismia americana

We thought we'd take a break from working on our rockin' Kickstarter video to tell you guys about one of our favorite stories here at the Big Idea, a story that partially inspired the show and is going to open the series. It's the first story we tell when we pitch the show, and it's a wonder it's not a more well-known tale.
We filmed part of an historical reenactment on it last month, which is why it's on our minds.

The story behind the unique plant Thismia americana, discovered by the equally fascinating Norma Pfeiffer.

The story was one dug up by myself, the show's producer, Adora Wilson-Eye, while I was still in college taking a nature documentary class. We had a documentarian come in that mentioned hearing way back when a story of a woman, the first to get her degree at her college, in Chicago discovering a "translucent orchid". Intrigued, my colleague Cassie Balynas and I wanted to find the details on this story, but our research turned up nothing -- we couldn't find anything for first female graduates, nothing on the discovery of a translucent orchid -- dead ends everywhere we looked. That is, until one day we cold-emailed some experts at the Field Museum who recognized enough of the details to point us in the right direction.
What we were looking for was Thismia americana, discovered by Norma Pfeiffer in 1912. Norma was the youngest person - male or female - to get her PhD at the University of Chicago in a time when she couldn't even vote. This is why we couldn't find anything on her when we looked up the first female grads, she was the youngest, not the first.
Norma was a botany student and teacher and one day in the late summer of 1912 she was collecting samples for a teaching post she had just received in North Dakota. She was collecting samples of native flora on the south side of Chicago (118th and Torrance to be exact -- a landfill now but marsh at the time) when she noticed something she didn't recognize.
A replica of what thismia would have looked like from a 2011 hunt for the plant
Not a translucent orchid, but a tiny clear plant, classified as a mycoheterotroph, a type of plant that subsists off of fungi on its roots rather than using photosynthesis for nourishment (thus the reason for being clear rather than green). Norma knew it was something unusual so she took samples back to her colleagues who recognized this as an undiscovered species.
Norma found the plant part of the thismia genus, a collection of mycoheterotrophic plants only found in the southern hemisphere (how it got up here is a mystery), and named it thismia americana. She received her PhD writing all about the morphology of it. She kept going back every summer and collecting samples until 1916, when someone built a barn on the site.
No one has ever seen the plant since. People have been searching for it as late at last summer, but nothing has been found and the plant is classified as extinct.
The theory goes that Norma found the plant on the verge of extinction, and it was on its way out anyway. She was just lucky and observant enough to find it right before it disappeared.
Activity has been light lately as we're working on the kickstarter video...that will be up and running soon!


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  2. You've probably read this article, but here you go anyway. I find this story fascinating as well: